Wire rope is used today in many industries and sectors for all kinds of lifting and handling needs, and in 2009 it celebrated its 175th anniversary. But their history, developing from standard rope, stretches back much further than this, with a rich backstory dating back thousands of years ago. In this article we explore in more depth the beginnings of the rope and its development into the common piece of industrial equipment that it is today.
Many draw a distinction between ‘rope’ and ‘modern rope’, but the latter, of course, came about due to the former, and this itself found its roots from rope. There is evidence that rope itself dates back to approximately 12000 BC, though this was not in the form of steel we see today, but instead materials such as hair, hides or plants. Other documents place the history of wire-making itself back to around 5000 BC.
Regardless of the exact date, it is clear that wire rope history is long, playing an instrumental part in key structures throughout the ages. Remains of rope have been found in Finland (somewhere between 9000 – 3000 BC), as well as in Ancient Egypt where it was made from papyrus, leather and palm fibres.
The lifting medium owes its roots to standard rope, which dates back to Ancient Egypt when it was made from papyrus.
One of the earliest recordings of the use of metal ropes was around 800 BC, where bronze had been used in Asia, consisting of several wires that had been bound together at intervals to form one sturdy piece. However, the use of a helical wire rope, which is similar to the twisted style that is used today, was developed later than this, approximately 500 BC, found in the ruins of the Roman city Pompeii. This was also made from bronze metal.
Rope in the Middle Ages
Documentation and recordings of the use after this period are somewhat scarce, although it appears that little changed in the production of the equipment for around 2000 years. The Middle Ages, a period dating between the 5th and 15th centuries, is where the next developments and recordings were seen.
During the first half of the Middle Ages a method was developed to draw the wire rope together. However, this was initially completed by hand, making it a slow and less-than-effective process. Towards the end of this era, around 1351, a mechanical method was developed for doing this, marking the beginnings of the industrial production of a form of wire rope, although it wasn’t the same twisted method that is used today.
It was the period after the Middle Ages where the use and development of rope was truly modernised, perhaps why some draw a distinction between ‘rope’ and ‘modern rope’. A large number of technical breakthroughs in the modern period came from Europe during the 1600s and 1700s, but it was in the 1800s that huge developments were seen in the United States, as well as in Europe.
The birth of modern wire rope is attributed to W.A.J Albert (1787-1846), an engineer based in the silver mines in the Harz Mountains, Germany. Up until this period, wrought iron chains were used as the most common form, but these were often subject to mechanical failure. As soon as one link within the chain broke, this rendered the whole tool useless.
Rolled iron, cast iron, and wrought iron were all used, alongside the use of hemp rope, but none of these methods provided a reliable, durable solution or the heavy usage that the equipment underwent, such as for wire cables for bridges in France or ship rigging in England.
Wilhelm Albert, who had worked at the silver mines for 18 years since 1806, was promoted to a management position in 1824. During the period that he had worked the mines, link chains and hemp rope were used to hoist up the ore, but both of these had a typically short service life.
So in 1824 Albert launched an analysis of the hoisting equipment used, and he concluded that a combination of the two, rope made from iron, was the solution. Although there had been attempts at using metal rope that had been twisted together both within the Harz mine and previously in periods of wire rope history, Albert devised a new strategy of twisting several pieces of wire together to form a strand, and then twist several strands together to create a wire rope.
Wilhelm Albert developed a method of twisting strands together to form rope
The success of Albert’s wire rope
Needless to say, Albert’s experiment had been very successful. It provided a reliable alternative to what was currently used in the mine and began to be adopted throughout Europe. The only drawback was that it still had to be twisted by hand, as the machines that had been developed earlier in history weren’t able to twist in Albert’s method. Also, none of the versions produced contained an internal core.
In the 1840s two British inventors, Robert Newall and Andrew Smith, were in a patent dispute over machinery they had developed to produce wire rope. Despite the dispute, they, and others around Europe showed that mass production of this new style of rope was possible, and Newall’s and Smith’s designs are still used in many wire ropes today.
At the same time in the US, John A. Roebling achieved the American breakthrough in the industry by developing a method that made hexagonal rope less defective against abrasion by using wires of three different diameters. He also unintentionally created what is now known as the equal-lay principle, whereby an outer layer wire is cradled by two other wires without it crossing over internally; a huge benefit for the strength of the material.
The John A. Roebling suspension bridge, named after the man who achieved the US breakthrough in the lifting medium
Since then there were developments by using ropes with a central wire or core, which greatly improves strength, flexibility and service life, as well as different means of laying the rope, but this is all attributed to Roebling’s breakthrough of using three different sized wires.
That brings us to the modern usage of the lifting medium! With its history dating back thousands of years ago to now with the creation of ropes using plants, they are now much sturdier, more reliable and more efficient, with the most common form being made from stainless steel.
We hope you have enjoyed reading our wire rope history article.
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